Tuesday, October 27, 2015
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
by Walt Marston
[Click on the article to enlarge it.]
I see Obama's outreach to the evangelical communities as a positive thing. We must not shun those with whom we have fundamental disagreement, but reach out to them in love, knowing that the reaching out itself is the most transformative action we can take.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
By Walt Marston
(In the context of conversation within our Quaker community)
This is a word that can be used in many ways and may be misunderstood in today’s religious contexts. It is related to emergence and post-modernism. Let’s start with post-modernism. What is that? Some people see this negatively as a pluralistic, relativistic (anyone’s truth is just as valid as anyone else’s) fad or trend. Some who see it this way also suggest the dangers of syncretism – that by embracing all religions as equally valid, or by trying to incorporate too many elements of different religions into our own, we are watering down our religion, making it less meaningful.
This is not what post-modernism (and emergence/convergence) is all about. Post-modernism in the most positive sense is based on a realization that our relationship to God and each other is a dynamic one. Modernism represents very linear, Newtonian, systems with rigid structures; and the modern church, even as it often preaches against the evils of secular modernism, is in itself a modern institution and its structures and belief systems reflect that of the prevailing culture (Think of the modern marketing strategies employed by so many churches to grow their numbers and expand their influence). Even though we’re moving into a post-modern era, we’re not far into it yet, so most of our institutions (especially churches) are still stuck in paradigms of modernism.
The modern era has predominated for over three centuries but peaked with great intensity in the late 20th Century. An important characteristic of modernism is “objectivism.” I like the following description: “The Newtonian worldview has it that there is one right or best answer to our problems and that everything can be objectively determined.” (Dialogue, Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard, Page 52)
An illustration of this comes to mind in reflecting upon “The Fog of War,” a recent documentary in which Robert McNamara reflects upon his role in the cold war era, and particularly the “hot” war in Vietnam. To me it is striking that an individual (a business and systems whiz kid) is recruited to develop an objective strategy that should have every action and consequence so accurately planned and predicted that it cannot fail – that there is an objective solution to winning a war, or achieving any objective. The fallacies and limitations of this “modern” thinking are so vividly portrayed in this film, even though it seems that in his 80’s McNamara is saddened by his failure, but still convinced that “rationality” is the answer to any problem.
Post-modernism is a new era in world society – shifting from the straight lines and rigid structures of the modern era to a more dynamic interactive view of the nature of things, based on relationship.
Post modernism in a religious or spiritual sense is attempting to move closer to a relational and dynamic understanding of God and our relationships to one another. In many ways, Quakerism has always been post-modern (or in some respects pre-modern). The so-called “emergent” movement or conversation is actually moving closer to our Quaker way of seeing things.
Post-modern and “emergence” go together. Emergence does not discard the older Newtonian systems altogether, but builds on them, emerging into a more expansive understanding based on relationships rather than on structures.
Likewise, the so-called emergent churches are not totally rejecting the modern church of their youth, but rather emerging into something better based on relationships (not just structures and linearity – old notions of cause and effect).
Convergence is something that can only come after a period of emergence from within various groups (a dialogic process involving a period of divergence, listening to one another’s differences, and finding common frameworks of understanding).
Then, there comes realization of shared truths and a convergence on a higher level (some would say a mystical level) based on a greatly enhanced understanding of shared values. This does not mean syncretism or dilution of one’s beliefs but rather a convergence of spirit in those matters that are most important.
My experience as an ecumenical-minded Quaker has been one of encouraging and honoring the emergence of greater understanding and relationships from within many faith traditions, followed by a convergence of important viewpoints on a higher spiritual level across traditions. Even as I use the words “followed by” I am reminded that this is not a linear process. Emergence and convergence are occurring cyclically and sometimes concurrently (Teilhard de Chardin’s spiral toward Christ?) as we become more aware in our relationships with God and each other. This is very gratifying when it occurs, an emerging grace. It is a continuous process, though, forged in relationship resulting from conversation and dialogue across boundaries that we might never have imagined could be crossed.
For me, convergence is not a place that I have reached or a state that I have attained, but rather something that I am always seeking – emerging and converging on multiple levels, but never forgetting or forsaking the foundations of my faith, the beginnings of my journey, and points along the way.
This is the glorious and remarkable way the Spirit is working in the post-modern era.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Non-Theism: An Outmoded Concept?
By Walt Marston
(Arising from conversations within our Quaker community)
I always find it interesting how people use labels to describe themselves and then how others react to these labels. The trouble with labels is that they mean different things to different people. I believe this is the case with the terms theist and non-theist.
I suppose there may be those who do not believe in any kind of God and find non-theist a less harsh label to apply to themselves than atheist. But I suspect that many who call themselves non-theists believe in God, just not the kind of God they were taught to believe in growing up.
This even applies to many who call themselves atheists. They believe in a “higher” power or source of life, but they don’t want to call it God because that name connotes images of a jealous and vengeful male personage “out there” somewhere who is all about rewards and punishments. I don’t believe in that kind of God, either, but I am not an atheist or a non-theist. I do believe in God, but the word God is a label for the transcendent unknowable force – the source of life that brings forth the physical universe and continuously sustains it. I think of this as more of a Presence or Spirit than a person. In fact the Judaic-Christian Scriptures say God is Spirit and is to be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth.
My old Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1998, defines theism as: “belief in the existence of one God viewed as a creative source of man and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world.” One could say this posits a God who is a person (or being). Yet even those who believe this would realize that for God to be greater than its creation and to be omnipresent within its creation, it would have to be more of a pervasive presence or spirit than a being. However, this is where the concept of God “the son” comes in, as God manifested in a human form like ours.
God is both transcendent and immanent – beyond its creation and also completely within and throughout it. There is nowhere God is not.
I recently saw a brochure for a church named Extended Grace, in Grand Haven, Michigan. Inside it describes the “3-2-1 of God” as follows:
“We celebrate God in the third person, second person and first person.
· The third person of God is that which transcends anything we can grasp or imagine. God as Creator, Trinity, Ruach, Mystery.
· The second person of God is relational and personal. Our Mother/Father God, Personal Savior, Beloved Bridegroom, the God who meets us when we are in the depths of despair.
· The first person of God is the face of our own True Self. We know we are only fully who we are meant to be when we are finally fully infused with Spirit, the Kingdom Within, Christ Consciousness, home of God’s indwelling Spirit.”
While my choice of words might be somewhat different, I think this does a wonderful job of depicting the levels or aspects of God. People who need to think of God in just one way, particularly as a person “out there,” often have problems relating to God in a personal way because this is a Power that must be pleased and a relationship that must be somehow evoked. The reality is more seamless and natural than that. I believe God is never separate from us, except in our consciousness, but this is difficult to realize.
It’s been said that the only “body” God has is ours. We are his body, his hands and feet. To the extent that we realize and employ the power of God which is everywhere around us and within us – that created and sustains us – we manifest our true nature as children of God.
So, while Quakers are usually theists and Christian, one does not have to subscribe to an old orthodox belief system in order to be either. To call oneself “non-theist” I believe is usually just a way of distinguishing oneself from those who’s concept of God is too narrow (that is, the old man – the patriarch—in the sky, and therefore a patriarchal view of God and our relationship to God).
I certainly hope that most of us have transcended that outmoded notion (of the patriarch) and traded it for one that is unlimited in scope and an unconditional source of power and love in our lives.
Friday, December 08, 2006
By Walt Marston
Having read “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care,” issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on November 14, 2006, I offer these reflections. I do not mean to disparage the good intentions of any church, but rather to encourage a reasoned dialogue in a spirit of love.
I have long suspected that the primary basis for differences in attitudes towards homosexuality rests on the concept of “natural order.” While I disagree with the Catholic bishops’ perception of natural order, this latest statement at least brings their arguments into clearer focus. In this document I can see the fundamental underpinnings of the Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality (and also how many evangelicals would see it).
I titled this essay “Disordered” because I think that is the fundamental issue. What is disordered and what is not? It can only be answered in relation to what is considered “ordered” or the natural order of things. I want to address several themes with which I take issue in the Bishops’ statement: natural order, God’s image, creation of life, chastity and public self-disclosures.
The statement starts well enough by emphasizing “the fundamental dignity possessed by each person as created by God.” It is only when it gets into “the place of sexuality in God’s plan” that I think it falls short of an adequate understanding of the “natural order” and “God’s plan.”
First of all, the repeated use of the terms “inclination” or “tendency” rather than “orientation” strongly implies that the bishops don’t believe there is such a thing as a natural homosexual orientation, at least in a biological sense. This runs counter to the preponderance of scientific evidence and experience which indicates that, while it is not known for certain what causes a person to be gay, it seems clear that it is rarely a choice that anyone makes.
Even more troubling is the view of homosexual expression as being all part of a narcissistic self-indulgence within the prevailing popular culture. On the first page of the document, they say that our society’s view of sexuality is “not in accord with God’s purpose and plan for human sexuality.” I certainly agree that the view of our society (fed by the media and corporate marketing) that sex is primarily for personal pleasure is not “of God.” Those of us who seek to be authentic integrated beings living in the love of God reject this materialistic, individualistic “inclination” of the popular culture. The bishops are mistaken, though, in thinking that homosexuality is just an “inclination” encouraged by the temptations of the popular culture and societal influences.
The document further states that because we are created in the image of God “the complementary sexuality of man and woman is a gift from God.” This certainly is a gift from God, but not the only one, not exclusive of other expressions of the unity of God’s love. The more complete image of God is that of a “whole” person, one who knows his true self in relation to God.
The concept of creating life is much too limited in the prevailing Catholic doctrine. Many married couples create life biologically, but have insufficient marital love to create life in the fuller sense that God intends. Also many married couples who cannot have children bring forth life in other ways. Likewise, many homosexual couples create an abundance of life in the full expression of God’s love, even though they are incapable of biological procreation.
The document states that “sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.” While there is some truth in this declaration, the error is in believing that gay unions cannot be procreative and unitive. Catholic doctrine places too much emphasis on biological procreation and not enough on marital love. It does not account for a higher spiritual understanding of procreation (bringing forth life) and unity in God.
Looking at Scripture, St. Paul’s references (and those of the Hebrew scriptures) to homosexual acts are referring to degrading practices of pederasty, abuse, prostitution etc and of idolatry, but not to loving, committed, life-affirming relationships in which gay couples do in fact worship the Creator, not the creature. The Bishops’ statement includes a call to chaste living. However, chaste can be defined as virtuous or faithful, and committed, loving, same-sex relationships can be and often are just as chaste as that of married couples.
I appreciate the admonition to show compassion to homosexuals within the church. However, this is greatly negated by the call for these persons to not publicly discuss this part of themselves. This is particularly troublesome with respect to persons who are homosexual, but also bodes ill for expression of individual conscience throughout the Catholic Church. It seems to contradict the “respectful dialogue” called for at the end of the document.
In the Concluding Remarks, the bishops say that “authentic dialogue . . . facilitates an ongoing, interior conversion for all parties truly engaged in the exchange.” This could be a wonderful capstone to the 26-page statement by the bishops but it only holds water if the bishops themselves are open to “ongoing, interior conversion.” I sincerely hope that they are.
Saturday, July 08, 2006
By Walt Marston
I find it interesting that I have friends who see their relationship to God in two fundamentally different ways. The difference may be primarily that of perspective, but it certainly affects the way we see the world and our relationship to God and each other.
One set of friends sees God as a potter and us as the clay, or God as a master craftsman and us as created objects. The others see God as parent and we as his children. I love all my friends, but I agree more with the second group.
The story of Pinocchio comes to mind and helps to shape my view of this. I do not believe we are mere Pinocchios, made as puppets to be manipulated by our Creator (and maybe later magically transformed). We are truly sons of God, born with our heavenly Father/Mother’s DNA.
If we were just created in the “image” of God as an object or a toy for God’s amusement, we could not in any sense be responsible for our actions, because we truly would not have the ability to choose.
We tend to see the seeming separation from God as real. In fact, it is only real in our consciousness, and this is the source of all our problems. We sin because we see ourselves as sinners, distant from God, unworthy to be called sons of God. We all fall short, miss the mark, sin, but sin is a deviation from our begotten nature, not the essence of it.
This can be a difficult concept to grasp – how we are “one” with God in the same way that a child is “one” with its parent. But, I think the truth of this is summed up in the first words of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught us to pray – “Our Father.”
I believe that our humanity depends upon our divine parentage. We cannot be fully human without recognizing the divinity at the core of our being. This is what Jesus demonstrated so completely.
As in the story of the prodigal son, the father never forgets that we are his child. We run off and waste our inheritance, but we are always forgiven and welcomed back, because our Father always knows that we are his and his bounty is ours if we will only claim it.
Saturday, July 01, 2006
By Walt Marston
My initial reaction to recent church pronouncements about homosexuality was one of anger. Then it turned to puzzlement, wondering how people see the issue so differently. Now I am past being angry. I think I can see why some churches and individuals believe as they do about homosexuality. It seems that our understanding of homosexuality is based to a large extent on our understanding of “natural order.”
Limited View of Natural Order
Many people believe that the natural order is a patriarchal type of order. Everything flows downward from God the Father to the princes and priests of our world (all men) to fathers as heads of families. Women are generally subordinate in this order. Some men are superior or more powerful than others in this model, and the relative worth of a person is based on his success in controlling (or protecting) those below him in the order. Gays are tolerated only to the extent that they are out of sight or at least not interfering with the “natural order.”
Of course, in this life, some things do need an authoritative order. We all like to think that things are “under control,” that some authority provides stability, protecting us and making us feel safe. But only to the extent of providing a reasonable level of safety and security, not a rigid and oppressive control of our lives.
All of this begs the larger questions. Where does true authority, real safety and security, reside? What is the real natural order? When does a hierarchical order apply and when does it just misrepresent the real underlying spiritual order?
Misunderstanding of Homosexuality
Likewise, it appears that the church and society have usually held the view that homosexuality is wrong or abnormal because it doesn’t fit a model of sex only for procreation and perpetuation of the patriarchal order. Scriptural interpretation has often been used to support this view.
However, in Bible times there was no clear concept of homosexuality. They didn’t see some people as “straight” and others as “gay.” They thought everybody was straight but that some of these straight people performed perverse or unnatural acts.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians refers to the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes and homosexual offenders. However, this “homosexual offender” was not a person in a loving same-sex relationship, but rather, a person whose excessive lust was gratified with the use (abuse) of boys or male prostitutes.
Similarly, the so-called “homosexual offenders” implied in other Bible passages, such as the Sodom story in Genesis, were actually heterosexuals engaging in immoral behavior – humiliating foreigners or degrading other people. These were acts of exploitative dominance or lust, not love. The people in these bible passages were sinning all right, but their sin was not homosexuality. It was idolatry, excessive self-gratification and abuse of other people.
Unfortunately our society and media promote stereotypes of gays as being selfish, self-indulgent and promiscuous, totally pre-occupied with sex within a so-called “gay culture.” The reality is far removed from this perception. Most gay people live ordinary lives, indistinguishable from the rest of us. The sexual aspect of their lives is no greater than it is for heterosexuals. The totality of who they are is not centered on their sexual orientation. There is no single “gay culture” just as there is no single “straight culture;” however, the stereotype that is continuously reinforced suggests that there is.
The real issue is not sexual orientation at all. It is the misuse of sex by anyone to dominate, manipulate or hurt other people, or the exploitation of sex in the media and the popular culture.
The Natural Order of God
Jesus gives us a fuller understanding of our true relationship to God and each other – a way that does not depend on power relationships. He shows us that the old top-down model no longer applies. Rather, the way of the Spirit is where our real security is found. The Spirit shows no partiality, no preference for power (actually empowers all persons, not just a privileged few).
The right order is that we are all equal before God and in direct relationship to God – this is the “natural order.” Because we are all equal in God, we are also equal to each other. Everyone is of equal worth. Only when we recognize this will we treat others with the love and respect they deserve, not some as more valuable or worthy than others.
Another important truth is the infinite variety of God’s creation. We are equal in value, but unique in expression. We are all different, yet we all have the same Source, indeed are inseparable from that Source. Not only are we all shades of color, but unique in a multitude of respects. Some are left-handed (and in past centuries persecuted even for this). Sexual orientation is one of the ways in which persons are infinitely different and unique. We must celebrate this uniqueness, not quash it to fit a false notion of a “natural order.” God made us different for a reason. Instead of seeing differences as threats, we should see them as creations of God that enhance our experience of life.
The wisest among us realize that diversity leads us to a fuller and clearer understanding of Truth. The reason is that individually, and even in our limited communities, we can only comprehend part of the Truth. In community and dialogue with those who see things differently, we are able to see more of the pieces that together make up the whole Truth. It is a grave mistake to think we’ve found all the pieces and then discontinue the search or wall ourselves off from others who would further clarify the full and ongoing revelation of God and Truth. The tendency is often to clutch tightly the pieces we’ve already found, out of a fear of losing them. The reality is that we never lose what we’ve found and known to be part of the Truth; we only enrich our understanding by opening to new experience of it.
The key is love. We must honor and encourage relationships that are based on real love and caring for one another. When two persons love each other and are committed to one another, they are not a threat to society; rather, they contribute to a higher morality by manifesting more of God’s love in the world. We should encourage loving, committed relationships, regardless of the persons’ sexual orientation. It is only hurtful and hateful use of sex and power that should be condemned.